I am always on the look out for new and interesting games as well as for designers who take chances and are in the process of building something. So while on Twitter last month I came across an interesting looking game from Joe Schmidt called Guerrillas of the Peninsular War. I reached out to the designer Joe Schmidt and he was more than interested in telling us about his game.
Grant: Joe, first off please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Joe: Growing up in New Jersey surrounded by AWI and ACW battlefields makes it easy for a little kid to fall in love with military history. I studied history in college, worked as an English teacher in Spain, and now live in Berkeley with my wife and twin daughters. I’ve been a life-long wargamer (both board and miniature) and I love sports, comics, and anything related to history. I work as an Operations Manager for a co-working space in San Francisco.
Grant: How did you get into game design? What do you love most about it?
Joe: My first game designs consisted of Risk pieces, Monopoly houses, and a Stratego board when I was about ten or eleven. Ever since then I have always been fascinated by game design. I’ve dabbled with a lot of ideas over the years, but finally got my first game up on BGG in 2017. Now I have three designs (two thanks to the great contests run on the design forum).
I love the problem solving nature of game design. It’s a constant struggle to find ways to turn ideas into something tangible. I also find it is one of the best ways to study and understand military history. Diving into why people made certain decisions and how these decisions changed history. I figure it’s the closest I can get to visiting the past, until we have really advanced VR.
Grant: What is your design philosophy?
Joe: My favorite all-time game design is Diplomacy, so I am always trying to find ways to replicate that elegance. As a Dad of young twin girls, I don’t always have a lot of time to play games. So my focus as a designer has always been on boiling games down to their essence. I like to call this “espresso design”. Capturing a big game experience in a thirty minute time frame. The nine-card design contest on BGG also really helped me shape the way I think about design. What if components were a limited resource? What if you only had a set number of tools to build a good game? It was a great exercise, and really helped me create Guerrillas of the Peninsular War.
Grant: Where did the idea come from to design Guerrillas of the Peninsular War? What other games did you draw upon for inspiration?
Joe: I fell in love with Spain when my future wife and I lived there in 2009. While there is so much to love about it (history, food, wine, soccer, landscape, etc.) it was by far the people who left an indelible impression on me. Their passion and pride was infectious. It made perfect sense to me why these people became Napoleon’s Spanish Ulcer. It is also an incredibly beautiful country, so I was excited to take a go at creating art based on one of my favorite places.
The COIN Series of games from GMT Games are a huge inspiration in all of my designs. Their ability to really capture the asymmetrical aspects of conflict is peak game design for me. The Napoleonic 20 series from Victory Point Games were also inspirational in the way they created these espresso versions of famous battles. The miniatures game Bolt Action, which used to play at my FLGS, was big too. I really like how they represented action economy and the difference between green and veteran troops. In Guerrillas I really wanted to give players a miniature game experience in a small, elegant package.
Grant: What is Guerrillas of the Peninsular War about? What was the goal of your design?
Joe: Guerrillas of the Peninsular War is about the classic struggle between an occupying force and the people who don’t want them to be there. Narratively speaking, I wanted to bring the player into the Spanish countryside where two factions are fighting with different goals in mind. I wanted it to be light, but also tell a good story. Designwise, I wanted to create a game that helped introduce basic concepts of wargaming (action economy, combat mechanics, and short and long term strategy) that were compelling as a quick lunchtime game or served as a good introduction to the incredible world of wargaming.
Grant: How does the game abstractly treat the typical hex and counter game?
Joe: For some boardgamers a hex map can be a bit intimidating. But it is also the best way, in my humble opinion, to accurately represent combat situations. So I was trying to think of ways to replicate a hex map without using hexes. By placing the cards in a 3-4-3 formation you can create a play area that mimics the traditional wargame board, and allows for additional art to create a more immersive narrative.
Grant: The factions are asymmetrical. What are the challenges with designing asymmetry and maintaining balance?
Joe: One of the big selling points of asymmetrical wargaming is the variety and replayability it offers. Both sides require different strategies and tell a different story. The two big keys for me in asymmetrical design are making sure that every decision counts and that players feel that they can fall into the narrative of their role in the game.
I think an important part of this design is to make sure that players have a close to equal number of available actions. In Guerrillas, this was achieved by giving both players the same deck of three Action Cards. For the tokens, I use a basic point system. I create a point value for each token based on their Combat Value, To Hit value, and Spirit. Using these I am able to balance out the forces on a very simple level, but I find it works well.
Grant: What are the differences in the two factions?
Joe: The Spanish have more basic units (Guerrilleros) that are dangerous in numbers but vulnerable when isolated. The Guerrilla Chief is a really heavy hitter and is best used in ambushes before retreating into the hills. They also have a singular victory condition, defeating the French, which allows for a more streamlined strategy.
The French are all good soldiers capable of holding their own in a fight. And, with the Inspiring Presence of the Chasseur, they also have some staying power. They need to be careful of becoming isolated, and watch out for Guerrilla ambushes. Because they have two victory conditions, defeating Guerrillas and foraging Supplies, they will need to focus on clearing out farms and villages so they can collect victory points. But, in doing so, the best strategy may be to split up their forces in order to maximize their efficiency.
Grant: The game has 18 cards. How are the cards used to play the game?
Joe: Ten cards are used to represent the play area (an unnamed area of the countryside of Spain), setup in a 3-4-3 formation. Two are Character Cards, which are used as a rules aid and to keep track of Spirit. The last six are Action Cards (three per faction) which determine initiative, available actions, and special effects via the Orders Deck. These six are the only cards that are constantly handled during the game, as the rest will keep their position in the play area for the duration of the game.
Grant: Can you give us a few examples of the different type of cards and how they are used?
Joe: There are three main types of cards in Guerrillas. The Character Cards serve as the players main interface with their Spirit (hit points), abilities and intentions in the game. As I wanted this to be a light game, I made sure to give a good review of the basic rules on the Character Card. I also used art and font as a means of drawing the player deeper into the narrative. I want you to feel like a grizzly Chasseur or a brave Guerrilla Chief when you play, and I feel the art helps.
The Map Cards are used to create the Play Area. With this game I wanted to let the cards lay the background of the story. I spent a lot of type developing and creating this art style, with good reason. All of the art is meant to represent the Spanish countryside, but in a more abstract style. An “X” on the card represents difficult terrain, which costs one additional action for the French player to enter. The number on the card represents the Supply Tokens the French Player can collect if they control the card. The red dots represent the number of Guerrilleros the Spanish player sets on the card at the beginning of the game.
Last (but not least!) are the Action Cards. These are the core of this design. Meant to represent the commands that would be sent via letter from the commander to their troops. These cards are the same for both sides, so each player has the same number of actions and special effects. The only difference is the flag on the card and some of the wording on the cards, which was meant to once again bring players into the narrative.
Grant: What is the key word Spirit and how does it effect troops?
Joe: I worked with a guy who served as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan. We would talk a lot, and once he knew I was passionate about military history he started to share some of his stories with me. Now, as a civilian I have no concept of what being in a war zone would be like. So I asked him what made a good soldier and he told me it was their spirit. Their individual will to put themselves in danger and protect their fellow soldiers on the battlefield.
Spirit for me in my games represents much more than death. In Guerrillas, if your spirit is reduced to zero it could mean that your character retreats, surrenders, is wounded, or is deceased. Once the will is gone, you are effectively out of the fight. For the basic units (Soldiers and Guerrilleros) it means they are removed from play. Once either of the characters have their Spirit reduced to zero, they are removed from play.
Grant: What benefit does Inspiring Presence offer?
Joe: Inspiring Presence is meant to represent the veteran leadership in Napoleon’s Grand Army. Where as your standard Guerrillero could quickly have their spirit broken, the Chasseur is able to draw upon his experience to keep his men in the fight. But, if the Chasseur isn’t willing to take some losses amongst his Soldiers, it could lead to an early exit due to a well-laid ambush by the Guerrillas!
Grant: How are the order cards used? How is a game setup? Can it differ from game to game?
Joe: At the beginning of each turn you will create your Orders Deck. Your Orders Deck will consist of three Action Cards, stacked in a small deck based on which of the three rounds they will be used. For example, If the Guerrilla player wants to create a plan in which they play the Advance Action in the 1st Round they would place it on the top of the deck. If they wanted to play the Advance Action in the 2nd Round, they would place it in the middle of the deck. If they wanted to play the Advance Action last, they would place it on the bottom of the deck.
Designing the Orders Deck was a lightbulb moment for me. I wanted to represent the disorganized nature of communications during the Napoleonic era in a way that still allows for a balanced in game experience. So, each player has the same three Action Cards with the same special effects. This forces the player to get in the mindset of a Napoleonic commander by writing out their orders and sending them out to their troops. Their individual actions are determined in the moment, but they must create some type of strategy to succeed.
To setup the Play Area, collect and shuffle the Map Cards and begin placing them face up in front of you in a 2-4-2 formation. Place the French Camp Card in the top left corner, and the Guerrilla Camp Card in the bottom right corner. This will create a ten card, 3-4-3 formation. This setup gives a variable play area in every game, which will allow for a variety of different strategies and tactics. When I was designing Guerrillas I really wanted to create a game with a lot of variety and replayability. It is one of the reasons I decided to use cards as the main component for creating the Play Area.
Grant: How does combat work? How do tokens deal with stress?
Joe: Combat is dice based. For lighter games I love using dice, as I feel the randomness adds more excitement to the game. My goal was to use a system that gave the advantage to players who used their available tokens and special effects to the best effect. Here is the example of combat I give in the rules.
The Guerrilla Chief and one Guerrilleros token attack two French soldiers. The Chief rolls two dice, a “3” and a “5”, inflicting two stress. The Guerrilleros rolls one die, a “4”, inflicting no stress. The French player then rolls two dice for the Soldiers, a “3” and a “1”. Since the French have played their Charge Action Card this round the modified dice results (+1 to each combat roll) are “4” and “2”, inflicting one stress. The Guerrillas win this fight, 2-1, and inflict one stress on the French.
Each stress results in the loss of one Spirit, which can be taken by any token that took part in the combat. Once a token or character has reached zero Spirit, they are defeated and removed from play. Stress do not carry over to other cards, and a player can only lose Spirit equal to the number of tokens in the combat (the exception being the Chasseurs Inspiring). Once all of the stress has been resolved the combat ends.
Grant: How do the French collect supplies?
Joe: The French player collects Supplies by controlling key cards in the Play Area. They collect Supply tokens equal to the number on any Map Card they control (defined as one or more French tokens being the only tokens on the card). Each Supply token is worth 1 Victory Point, the first to 10 VPs wins, so every one is valuable. I designed it this way because I felt the only time soldiers would focus on foraging would be when no enemies were present. This was actually a really difficult aspect of the game to nail down, but in the end I felt comfortable with it.
Grant: How do players win the game?
Joe: After the all the cards in the Orders Deck have been played the game moves to the End Phase. In this phase, players will count up their Victory Points (VP) to see if they have secured enough points to have won the game. The French player scores points for defeated enemies (3 VP for the Guerrilla Chief, 1 VP for Guerrilleros) and foraged supplies (1VP per Supply Token). The Guerrilla has simpler conditions, and scores points only for defeating enemy tokens (2VP per French Token). If either player has a score of ten or more Victory Points, the game ends and they are declared the winner. If neither player has scored ten points, then the game moves to the next Action Phase.
Grant: How long do typical games take to play? When you began design was this short play time always the goal?
Joe: Average playtime is 15-30 minutes depending on experience with the game and how involved players get in the narrative (who doesn’t like talking with a fake French accent?). The goal was always to create a session game, good for a break in the middle of the day or something at a bar or coffee shop. That was another benefit of having only 18 cards and 30 components, as it travels well and sets up quickly.
Grant: What has changed in the design through the play test process? Please give a few examples.
Joe: So much! This whole game was created thanks to a lot of playtesting of various card based play area concepts. This was the third major shift amongst around a dozen other designs. Playtesting for me is all a part of the puzzle solving nature of game design. How can I solve the puzzle, and how can I use playtesting to make the puzzle more compelling? It is a constant and necessary evil. But, it is the only way to learn as a designer.
One of the biggest changes was regarding the Orders Deck. At first, I used one of the cards to represent an action/initiative chart on the side of the Play Area. You would roll a die and that would determine how many actions both players used and who had the initiative. This could lead to some weird runs, and didn’t really fit the narrative I was shooting for. Next, I just did the cards with actions but no additional effects. While I felt this helped, it still drove the game in the wrong direction. Finally I settled on the Action Cards with additional effects and the Orders Deck.
Grant: Where can the game be purchased?
Joe: Currently the game is available for free as a Print-and-Play! Head over to Board Game Geek for the files. The game is also currently a contestant in the 2018 Print and Play Wargames Competition so if you enjoy it I would really appreciate your vote! Depending on demand, I plan on doing a limited print run for people who would just like to buy a copy. If you are interested, hit me up on Twitter at @josephnschmidt.
Grant: What other designs are you working on?
Joe: I have some ideas for expansions to the Guerrillas system. I’ve always loved Sharpe, so I would love to get some British Rifles and Polish Lancers into the fight. I also have an insurgency game I am working on that focuses on some interesting hidden movement mechanics. Just playtested it tonight for the first time and it didn’t break, which is always a good sign! There is also a simple modern aircraft game I designed a couple years ago that I think I will focus on getting out as my free Christmas print and play. It’s about dogfighting in the Arctic and plays pretty smoothly. After that, I’d like to start focusing on my first big game. Spread my wings a little!
Thank you for your time Joe and for the in-depth look at this interesting fast playing asymmetric wargame Guerrillas of the Peninsular War. Good luck on the BGG contest and also in your continuing design endeavors in the future.